Is it Time for a Name Change at the DPW?

A broad-based coalition is forming in the push to change the name of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare.  A letter of support delivered to the General Assembly last week was signed by five former governors: George Leader, Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Ed Rendell.  It begins by stating, “Words matter. Names matter. Stigma lasts.”

State Senator Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery) is joining forces with Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) to introduce legislation that would change the name of the DPW to Department of Human Services.  “Everyone assumes when you see the Department of Public Welfare that that is all they do.  In honesty they do a lot more than just welfare,” Mensch explains.  “It’s a department that doesn’t deserve a name that creates bias.” 

None of the 67-counties uses the term “welfare” for its human services agency, and Mensch believes Pennsylvania is the only state government that still refers to a Department of Public Welfare. 

“It really has a huge presence in our state and I think it would be appropriate to have a meaningful discussion around what that department does – calling it by its rightful name, which I believe should be Department of Human Services.” 

The Mensch/Costa bill already has 20-cosponsors in the Senate and it hasn’t even been introduced yet.  An identical bill being introduced in the House has 82-cosponsors.  To save taxpayer money, Mensch suggests a graduate changeover whereby all existing supplies are exhausted before new ones are ordered with the new name.     

The Campaign for What Works has also sponsored an online petition to help garner public support for the name change.

No Medicaid Expansion, Corbett Seeks Reform

Pennsylvania will not pursue an expanded Medicaid program until the federal government reforms the system.  Governor Tom Corbett made his intentions known during Tuesday’s budget address before the General Assembly.  “We cannot afford to expand a broken system,” Corbett announced.  “Right now, without expansion, the cost to maintain our current Department of Public Welfare programs will increase by $400-million dollars.  The main driver in that cost increase is Medicaid and long-term care.” 

The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid to cover people up to 138% of the federal poverty line, but a Supreme Court ruling made it an option for the states. 

Until reforms are made, Corbett is opting out.  “The federal government must authorize real flexibility and innovative reforms that empower us to make the program work for Pennsylvania,” he says.  The governor has written the federal government to express his concerns.   

But the move has irked Senate Democrats, as Medicaid expansion supporters say it would cover at least a half-million more Pennsylvanians, save on uncompensated care costs and inject billions of federal dollars into the state’s economy.

Vincent Hughes

State Sen. Vincent Hughes

“The governor is walking away not just from the number one health care issue that is confronting us, but the number one job creation issue that exists in front of us,” Senator Vincent Hughes lamented in the wake of Corbett’s budget speech. 

The federal government has promised to pay 100% of the cost of the Medicaid expansion for the first three years, but the Corbett administration says the state’s administrative costs would approach $1-billion dollars over that time, and they are not interested in raising taxes or cutting programs to make up the difference.

Last December, Corbett also passed on a state-run health insurance exchange, under the new federal health care law.

United Way Calls for Review of Welfare Savings

As state lawmakers enter the 2013 budget cycle, the head of Pennsylvania’s United Way wants an independent review of a 2011 law that paved the way for $400-million dollars in savings at the Department of Public Welfare.  United Way of Pennsylvania President Tony Ross says Act 22 gave the DPW secretary unprecedented authority to implement new regulations in order to achieve the savings.  “We think it’s very important for policymakers and others to have information about what those cost containment measures meant – in terms of waste, fraud & abuse, and also impact on vital services,” Ross says. 

Ross tells Radio PA there’s anecdotal evidence on both fronts, but an independent review can get to the bottom of it.  “We don’t particularly have a preference,” he says of whether it comes from the Auditor General, Independent Fiscal Office or the Legislative Budget & Finance Committee. 

DPW spokeswoman Donna Morgan says a lot went into the attainment of the $400-million in savings, not just Act 22.  She points out that no legal challenges have been filed since the law passed the General Assembly and was signed by the governor.  “It’s not about just cutting here and cutting there,” Morgan explains.  “It’s about making these programs more efficient, breaking down the barriers between different programs and providing more flexibility so that tax dollars can be used more efficiently.” 

Welfare spending accounts for over 38% of the current General Fund budget, and mandatory medical assistance costs alone are expected to increase by $650-million dollars in the new fiscal year, according to the Mid-Year-Budget Briefing.

State Holds Off on Controversial Co-Pay for Now

The state was taking some heat for a plan to require an income based Medicaid co-pay for families with disabled children.  The plan is now on hold, and families of children with autism and other disabilities will not have a co-pay until further notice.

The Department of Public Welfare is reviewing the plan.  Spokeswoman Donna Morgan says they had preferred the option of a premium, but would need federal approval. They had requested a waiver last year, but had not gotten a final answer. The department will renew its efforts to get a waiver to impose a premium.

Morgan says a premium would be a flat fee and easier for families to budget. She says they have been hearing from advocates and stakeholders that they would prefer a premium instead of a co-pay.

The department will notify families once a decision is reached.

Morgan says the program invests over 700 million dollars a year for over 48 thousand families and the state needs to make it sustainable.

Hearing to Focus on Child Advocacy Center Bill

A Child Advocacy Center can be the focal point of care for young victims of physical or sexual abuse.  With them, state Rep. Julie Harhart (R-Lehigh/Northampton) says child victims must only tell their traumatic stories once.  Without them, she says, they would have to go through that experience five or more times for police officers, doctors, social workers and other officials.

Harhart is the prime sponsor of the Children’s Advocacy Center Funding Act which would help to support the state’s 20+ existing CACs, and assist counties that want to establish them.  No taxpayer money would be spent on the program, as HB 1739 calls for a $2-fee on certain court filings in the state.  However, that funding stream may be tweaked in committee to instead come from a fee on certain child abuse background checks conducted by the Department of Public Welfare.

The source of the funding is expected to be thoroughly discussed when the House Judiciary Committee convenes a public hearing in the capitol complex on Tuesday.

Rep. Harhart tells Radio PA that her passion for the bill comes from the success she’s seen firsthand at the Lehigh County Child Advocacy Center.  “It’s a one-stop-shop for the tiniest victims of crime,” she says.

This is not a new issue; Harhart has been working to find a statutory funding stream for CACs for ten years now.  She acknowledges, however, that the Penn State scandal may be bringing her bill more attention this year.


General Assistance Cash Grants to End Next Month

This will be the last month of state-issued checks for more than 60,000 needy and disabled residents who’ve been beneficiaries of General Assistance cash grants from the Department of Public Welfare.

The roughly $150-million dollar program has been on the chopping block since Governor Tom Corbett’s initial budget plan was unveiled in February.  Late in the budget process a deal was reached to allow for one additional month of checks to be issued, so as to ease the transition, but the program will soon be eliminated.

“Some of them will end up on the streets, some of them will end up in emergency rooms, some of them will end up in jail,” says Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania Executive Director Liz Hersh, who fears many of these vulnerable citizens will be left with nothing.

Vincent Hughes

State Sen. Vincent Hughes

Senate Minority Appropriations Chair Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.) has a district office right around the corner from a welfare office.  “Everyone’s in a panic,” he says of the knowledge that their lifeline is being cut.

But Governor Tom Corbett says his administration is working to connect people losing these state-funded cash benefits to other programs.  “From discussions with staff, we believe that some people probably are not exercising access to some areas that they might have access to,” Corbett explained to reporters during recent budget negotiations.

Budget Package Signed Just Before Midnight Deadline

The new fiscal year began on Sunday with the second straight on-time, no tax increase budget.  “Today we reaffirm our commitment to job growth, to education, to the needy and to the taxpayers… our goal is growing new jobs,” Governor Corbett said upon signing the $27.7-billion dollar spending plan late Saturday night.

But critics say the new budget does little to preserve the social safety net.  They lament the elimination of a cash grant welfare program for more than 60,000 needy and disabled residents.  “A lot of men in my district will have no means of support.  And in my district, no means of support means take what you need,” explains Rep. John Myers (D-Philadelphia).  The administration has agreed to continue the program for one more month to ease the transition.

Governor Corbett says he’s pleased that an improving financial picture allowed them to restore funding to several areas, including the Accountability Block Grants that fund full-day kindergarten programs across the state.  Public schools are essentially being level-funded this year, while an extra $40-million dollars has been earmarked for the most fiscally distressed districts.

One of the biggest budget restorations came in the area of higher education, where state-owned and state related universities had been facing cuts of 20% and 30% respective, which would have been on top of last year’s 18% and 20% cuts.  The new level funding comes with a commitment from the university presidents that tuition hikes will be kept at a minimum for the upcoming school year.

Much of this weekend’s activity focused on the other executive and legislative priorities tied to this year’s budget.  Lawmakers signed off on a new system of teacher evaluations for public school teachers, and an expanded Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program that will give businesses tax breaks when they fund school choice scholarships for low-income students in the state’s worst-performing schools.

Another big victory for the administration was the so-called “ethane cracker tax credit,” which Governor Tom Corbett has described as a new industrial revolution in Pennsylvania.  It passed with broad, bipartisan support.

Charter school reform legislation did not get finalized before lawmakers’ summer break, however Corbett and leading Republicans vow to keep pressing the issue in the fall.  Also, there will be a pilot program to offer county human services funding in block grants vs. seven separate line items.  Up to 20-counties will be able to participate in the pilot; Corbett had originally proposed Human Services Block grants statewide.

Advocates Fight to Save Cash Assistance Program

On the chopping block this budget season is the cash portion of the state’s General Assistance program in the Department of Public Welfare.  The $150-millon dollar effort provides more than 60,000 recipients with monthly checks of around $200-dollars.

Those recipients most often include the disabled, sick and those fleeing domestic violence.  “General Assistance is the last knot of the safety net… many of those are persons who have no other means of support,” says Stephen Drachler, executive director of United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania.

Numerous faith-based groups recently joined a diverse, statewide coalition to write the General Assembly in hopes of saving the welfare program.

Housing advocates are even adding their voices to the chorus.  Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania executive director Liz Hersh says General Assistance is typically used for basic living expenses and homeless shelters are already stressed.  She fears more people would wind up on the streets.

“As taxpayers, while it may be unpalatable to have a program like General Assistance, it actually saves us money,” says Hersh, noting that the aid actually keeps people out of more costly public programs.

The governor’s 1,000+ page executive budget (released in February) notes that eliminating the cash portion of General Assistance will allow the DPW to maintain health care for individuals who do not qualify for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or Medicaid.

Governor Tom Corbett’s spokesman Kevin Harley tells Radio PA that federal programs will be there to assist the truly needy.  “The state program was always above and beyond what the federal government provided, and many states have eliminated or drastically cut back similar programs because of difficult budget situations.”

Like the governor’s budget plan, the Senate budget bill does not include funding for the cash portion of General Assistance.  “There is competition for limited resources,” noted Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi whilie meeting with capitol reporters late last month.

But advocates say there is room for compromise, as they seek to preserve General Assistance for those most in need.

Governor Tom Corbett and top Republican lawmakers continue to negotiate next year’s state spending plan.  The final budget is expected to spend more than the $27.1-billion proposed by Corbett in February, but less than the $27.7-billion passed by the Senate in May.


Training Tool Does More than Meet Federal Mandate

A federal mandate requires specialized training for lawyers representing abused and neglected children, if the state is to continue to receive $950,000 dollars a year for related services.  The state Supreme Court’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts responded with a first-of-its-kind training DVD.

“Even though it started out to particularly meet a federal mandate, it really turned into a lot more,” says Butler County Judge Kelley Streib, who co-chaired the panel that helped create the new training tool for guardians ad litem.

The video includes all of the relevant laws and procedures, but we asked Judge Streib to explain what really stands out in her mind:JudgeStreib

“No longer is it acceptable to have children languishing for years in the dependency system,” Streib explains.  That’s been a major focus of both the state courts and Department of Public Welfare in recent years.  Since 2006, the number of dependent children in temporary foster care has been reduced by 33%.

Capitol, State Capitol, Dome

State Reviews Electronic Benefit Card Transactions, Cuts Off Benefits to Non-residents

The state Department of Public Welfare has completed its initial review of out-of-state transactions for electronic benefit cards.  653 individuals have been cut off from benefits, most because they were no longer living in Pennsylvania. Most were using the food stamp program; some were collecting other types of assistance.

Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Ann Bale says they looked at people consistently making transactions out-of-state and flagged more than one thousand who were spending consistently in another state over a three month period. They discovered 653 who were no longer eligible for the benefits.

She says when people are spending consistently outside of Pennsylvania, it’s an indication they may no longer be residents of the state.  Once you move out of Pennsylvania, you are no longer eligible for Pennsylvania benefits.

The initial review looked at states that do not border Pennsylvania. Now the department will start taking a closer look at transactions in neighboring states.

Bale says the department is able to look at the type of transactions, and can identify when legitimate activity has been going on.

She says the review sends a message. This is only the beginning of their research into this type of fraud.